Lovers in the Lens

By John RaeburnJuly 24, 2012

    Artful Lives by Beth Gates Warren. J. Paul Getty Museum. 392 pages.

    WHEN EDWARD WESTON and Margrethe Mather met, in his Los Angeles studio in 1913, he was supporting his young family with portrait sittings and she worked as a prostitute or so she later told a confidante. The ambitious and energetic Weston had already developed a more than local reputation from the exhibition of his misty, romantic images in artistic venues beyond California, and their publication in photography magazines. Mather had taken up photography a year or two earlier and achieved remarkably rapid recognition, exhibiting a figure study in two prestigious salons, at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute and Ghent’s Palais des Beaux-Arts. Weston and Mather, both in their mid-twenties, soon became lovers according to Beth Gates Warren, whose Artful Lives is a joint biography of them through 1923, as well as a survey of the Los Angeles Bohemian circles with which the two photographers came into contact during those ten years. After their relationship ended in 1923, Weston expatriated himself to Mexico, where he wrote in his diary that Mather had been “the first important person in my life.” But he also destroyed its pages recording his Los Angeles life and her letters to him, thus obscuring whatever lay behind his encomium. Warren sees Weston’s “shroud of opacity” as his effort to conceal Mather’s influence, and she undertakes to recreate the details of their relationship and of the cultural milieu of early twentieth-century Los Angeles in order to establish Mather’s rightful place in photographic and cultural history.

    Mather has been a cipher in these histories, and Warren succeeds in bringing her out of obscurity and making a persuasive case for her photographic talent. To accomplish the former, Warren had to penetrate Mather’s own shroud of opacity, for as a young woman she effectively fabricated a new identity and substantially fictitious past. She was born in 1886 to Danish Mormon parents after their emigration to Salt Lake City. When Mather, who was born Emma Youngren, was three years old her mother died, and following her father’s remarriage she was sent to live with her mother’s sister, also a Mormon convert living with a Salt Lake City widower as his housekeeper and possibly his mistress. After a dismal performance in high school and work as a physician’s assistant, Emma left Utah for California, going first to San Francisco and then Los Angeles, where she moved not later than mid-1912. By that date she had already metamorphosed into Margrethe Mather, shaving three years from her actual age of 26 and claiming that she had spent most of her childhood in an orphanage before becoming a sex worker as an adolescent. Her mythomania and lifelong penchant for secretiveness make her history a confounding one to reconstruct. To plumb Mather’s esthetic sensibility, Warren offers formal readings of her photographs — of the twenty reprinted, most are portraits — and through intrepid archival research creates a credible portrait of her young adulthood, although with one significant equivocation.

    About Weston, and his relationship with Mather, Warren is less successful, in part because of that equivocation. She asserts that they began a “full-blown love affair” within weeks of meeting, and that it continued until he left Los Angeles, although with ebbing intensity after he became infatuated with photographer Tina Modotti around 1921. While this conclusion seems possible in light of Weston’s later history of energetic sexuality with numerous partners, as recorded in his Daybooks of the Twenties and Thirties, in fact some of his acquaintances insisted the relationship was never sexual. To neutralize this uncertainty, Warren imputes the Clintonian definition of sexuality to Weston: that to him sex was intercourse and foreplay was something else. Her source for this notion was Charis Wilson Weston, his second wife, who did not meet him until 20 years after his supposed affair with Mather began. Nor does Warren investigate Mather’s contemporary reputation as a bisexual with a preference for women, as reported by the writer Ben Maddow in an influential monograph on Weston. Her account of Mather’s mysterious female benefactor nicknamed “Beau,” and attention to other lesbian bohemians such as the Little Review editors Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, hint at this predilection but only obscurely, because making it too central would threaten the plausibility of Mather and Weston engaging in a “full-blown love affair.” But even though Artful Lives only lightly addresses the question of Mather’s sexuality, in light of her possible erotic ambivalence it seems possible that her relationship with Weston was not carnal because Mather resisted it, or that it was only fleetingly so. In any event, there is no evidence cited for Warren’s overheated characterization of Mather’s erotic talents and their galvanic effect on Weston, and it seems doubtful that any exists. He was “mesmerized” by her sexual sophistication, Warren writes, the “inexperienced Weston,” dazzled by her “creative” lovemaking. Warren’s emphasis on Mather’s sexual expertise and Weston’s eager tutelage is intended to parallel the dynamic in their artistic relationship, in which Mather is consistently portrayed as the innovator and Weston the follower. As for his being sexually inexperienced he had been married for seven years and his third child was born the year he and Mather met.

    Lovers or not, Mather and Weston cherished their friendship, and, in fact, in 1921 they became partners in his portrait studio. Warren is unable to account for that decision, but it seems likely to have had some practical basis, especially inasmuch as by then, Weston was already thinking of abandoning Los Angeles. Only a dozen co-signed pictures have survived, and both photographers continued to exhibit their artistic work separately. What the partnership unequivocally indicates, in addition to their mutual affection, is each photographer’s professional respect for the other.

    Warren proffers a number of adept formal analyses of Weston and Mather’s individual images that indicate their artistic ambition and esthetic sophistication. Both photographers experimented with asymmetrical framing, gave scrupulous attention to textures as well as shapes, aspired to maximum simplification, and tended toward abstraction without losing sight of the palpability of the people and objects they photographed. Warren concludes that Mather, as the more daring and innovative artist, inspired Weston to reinterpret “certain formal elements and refinements of composition” that she had pioneered. The accuracy of this judgment of esthetic influence is difficult to assess; the limited number of photographs by each artist reproduced in the volume provide a barely sufficient basis for comparison. The parsing of formal influence, moreover, is an old-fashioned, limited, and perhaps exhausted preoccupation, less significant and revealing than an earlier generation wanted it to be.

    Warren’s formalism provides an incomplete basis for evaluating the significance of Weston’s and Mather’s (or any artist’s) work, for she scants thematic analysis of their photographs as well as their relationship to more general artistic and cultural developments. The linked if chronologically reversed titles, for instance, of Weston’s Epilogue of 1919 and Prologue to a Sad Spring of 1920, both employing Mather as model, fairly beg for biographical and thematic interpretation especially since Weston exhibited them together. Their melancholy titles as well as their visual elements — the looming shadows that dominate each composition; Mather’s figure pressed into a lower corner of each frame; and looking away from the camera and out of the frame, her expression enigmatic but in both instances doleful — almost certainly reference some perturbation in the photographers’ relationship, which would shortly begin to founder, but Warren provides only formal analysis and even relegates the photographs to separate chapters.

    Weston’s early photographs are fairly obscure for a reason not mentioned by Warren. In the early twenties, disavowing Pictorialism — an arty style emphasizing subjectivity and soft focus that he and Mather had both practiced — he destroyed an unknown number of his early photographs and ever after discouraged exhibition of his work in that mode. On a trip east in the fall of 1922, he photographed the Armco Steel plant in Ohio — an instance of industrial modernity that was an entirely novel subject for him, one that he saw with sharper clarity than was his usual practice—and then visited New York, where he called on Alfred Stieglitz, the preeminent apostle of straight photography, receiving his imprimatur. While Warren narrates these events capably she neglects to historicize Weston’s turn to Purism, or straight photography. Although Pictorialism continued for twenty or more years to have many amateur adherents, its heyday as a significant artistic practice was over by the time Weston met Stieglitz, when it was being already scorned as sentimental claptrap by virtually all “modernists.” That was particularly the case in California, where the Pictorialists were well-entrenched, and Group f. 64, the organization of Purists that Weston in 1932 helped found (most of its members apostate Pictorialists), had as its announced goal to excommunicate them from the fellowship of art and extirpate their mode of photographic seeing.

    While Mather and Weston were among the founding members in 1914 of the Camera Pictorialists of Los Angeles, their interest quickly flagged, and as a result Warren pays only desultory attention to Los Angeles’s photography scene. She concentrates instead on several sometimes overlapping circles of “Bohemians,” composed of people who were antipathetic to the city’s politically conservative business establishment, who despised the Philistine boosterism that Los Angeles’ phenomenal growth had encouraged, and who held heterodox esthetic or political views that set them apart from their more conventional neighbors. These various circles included such political radicals as Joseph Ely O’Carroll, bourgeois liberals as Gaylord Wilshire, movie people as William Desmond Taylor, independent culturati as Rudolph and Pauline Schindler, performing artists as Ruth Deardorff-Shaw, visual artists as Rob Wagner, and educational reformers as Prince Hopkins.

    Warren assembles a good deal of interesting material about the now mostly-forgotten individuals who composed these groups, but without integrating it into a tightly-woven and textured portrait of Los Angeles’s cultural life in the years around the First World War, or even one that indicates how contact with these circles affected Mather’s and Weston’s beliefs and artistic work. Much of the fault for this deficiency lies with the book’s mechanical structure, all but its opening chapters rigidly dedicated to a single year and each chapter composed of a dozen or more subsections frequently linked to the others only by forced and unconvincing transitions. The effect of these organizational arrangements is to make the book’s examination of the city’s Bohemian circles diffuse and disconnected. A fair number of individuals make cameo appearances in one chapter, only to be forgotten later on. A few seem dragged in because they would later sport a famous name, as is the case with Rudolph Valentino, whose inclusion is mostly based on the fact that before he became a star he had met Mather socially and lived in a seedy apartment building near her studio/living quarters. The weightiness of the Bohemian community is artificially swollen as well, by including in it, as honorary members, visitors to Los Angeles such as Emma Goldman, Carl Sandburg, and Max Eastman, all of whom come in for more attention than is justified in a book about Los Angeles’s Bohemia.

    If the decrepit freighter that carried Weston to Mexico had sunk in 1923 he would be little more than a footnote in photographic history, for it is the photographs he made after he left Los Angeles that are the basis for his standing as a master. The apprentice years of artists are always of interest, of course, although rarely are the efforts of those years as aslant of an artist’s maturity as is the case with Weston. That more than fifty years after his death there is still no satisfactory biography of such a preeminent artist is a sign of how underdeveloped photographic discourse is compared with that about painting or literature. Beth Gates Warren has made a valiant effort to fill in at least Weston’s early years, but even for that period a more critical understanding is needed to grasp their relation to the much greater accomplishments of his middle age.

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    LARB Contributor

    JOHN RAEBURN is professor emeritus of American Studies and English at the University of Iowa. He is the author of books on Frank Capra, Ernest Hemingway, Ben Shahn, and American photography in the 1930s.


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